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Ah Shi Sle Pah West

I have photographed and written about Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash extensively. The place is a unique environment and the relatively small area of interest is still revealing new secrets to me. But, as I stood on the edge of the wash recently, I looked to the horizons and wondered what else might be hiding in that seemingly featureless landscape. The thought stayed with me, so one morning I opened Google maps and began searching for telltale signs of eroded areas along the edges of the wash. As I moved west, I eventually came across a region that looked promising. I then began looking for means of access and found a road that ended right at the edge of the area on the map. A quick look at Garmin Base Camp identified GPS coordinates and I was on the road.

Timestone

A lone sandstone boulder rests before a hoodoo forest in a remote section of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash

Exploring at home on a computer is quite a bit different from driving out into a remote place where you have never been. The dirt two track off the main dirt road seemed endless–even though it was actually only a little over two miles from start to finish. At one point I drove into a section where the road became extremely sandy, and I had to backtrack or risk getting stuck. I eventually found my way to the end of the road and parked. on one side was the broad expanse of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash, on the other was a wall of incipient hoodoos emerging from a black hillside. It looked like my hunch had paid off.

Prolonged-Awakening

A petrified log emerges from a bentonite mound in a remote section of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash

The more I saw, the more excited I became. Unlike the well-known part of Ah Shi Sle Pah where the features are exposed in an unbroken display several miles long, this small extension seemed to be more recently unearthed in smaller, more intimate areas scattered along both edges of the wash.

Lost-But-Not-Forgotten

A colorful area of newly emerging hoodoos and clinker covered hills in the distance

I could see more places to the west that looked promising, but by that time, it was getting too late in the day. I wandered and photographed in the immediate area for a couple of hours before deciding to call it a day.

A couple days later, I was on my way to Ah Shi Sle Pah again to further investigate the terrain I hadn’t had a chance to cover on my previous foray. I had identified a place to park that would put me within a mile of the region I wanted to explore. The route took me over a sage covered plain and then dropped into a small tributary wash where I found some hoodoos and petrified wood.

Detritus

Small pieces of petrified wood are exposed in the many small tributaries of the main wash

I made a beeline for my ultimate goal, which required several short climbs out of the wash, onto the sage, and back into the wash. I finally arrived at the main wash and began climbing around in the rocks on the northern edge. It was slow going because I had to choose my route carefully due to sudden drop-offs, sink holes, and the possibility of buzz worms (rattlesnakes).

In-Search-Of-Balance

A view from the northern edge of the wash out across the surrounding terrain

At one point, I looked back to the main wash and across the way I had come and made a photo. But I was drawn by some force to continue to see what lay beyond the next ridge, the next cluster of hoodoos. I came to a crest and dropped into the next tributary. Things were really starting to get (more) interesting. There was an image everywhere I looked.

Textures-Of-Time

A jumbled and shattered landscape at the far western extreme of the Ah Shi Sle Pah badlands

The landscape was tortured and shattered. Forces of erosion and weather had sculpted an unimaginable (even for that area) jumble of hoodoos, spires, and tables. One small hoodoo bore an uncanny resemblance to a brain on an over-developed spinal cord.

Brainstone

The strangely eroded sandstone forms at the western edge of the Ah Shi Sle Pah badlands

So, there I was thinking it couldn’t possibly get any better, when I caught sight of what is possibly the most bizarre, unearthly formation I had ever seen. It was a hoodoo, but the support column was perforated in places, and the part that remained around the perforations was shaped like some sort of geological accordion. But, my brain stamped it as an exposed part of some mesozoic nervous system.

An-Unexpected-Encounter

Perhaps the single most bizarre formation I have ever encountered in the San Juan Basin badlands

I spent close to two hours working the thing from all possible perspectives. I was lucky to have an incomparable atmospheric display with light that was constantly changing.

Synapse-Sepia

A sepia toned monochrome image of the singular hoodoo in the western section of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash

The fluctuating illumination on the scene resulted in mood swings worthy of the subject. In the end, I walked away with close to two hundred images and plans to return at some time in the near future. The fragility of the structure is such that I imagine it could crumble and fall at any time.

Neurality

A more detailed image of the hoodoo I have come to think of as Neural Pathways

But, I have witnessed other such oddities in the vastness of the San Juan Basin that have defied the vagaries of time and weather against all odds for decades, centuries, millennia, so perhaps this wonderful piece of nature’s art will endure for a while.

Ah Shi Sle Pah, A New Perspective

The one half mile long dirt road that leads from New Mexico Hwy 57 (actually, also a dirt road) cuts through the sage brush prairie with only the slightest sign that there could be anything of interest ahead. The road comes to an abrupt end in a small turn around and a suggestion of a drop beyond the slight rise at the edge of the featureless plain. But, a short walk to the edge of that rise will change any pre-conceived ideas about Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. The land falls away quickly into a jumble of strange shapes that defy the imagination. Usually, when I make this trip, I walk down into the midst of it all, but on this trip, it was my intention to capture the landscape along this southern edge of the wash, to use the incredible shapes and textures to make more broad landscapes to tell the story of how this place was formed, and how it continues to evolve.

From-Now-To-Then

A view through layers of geologic time to Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash in the distance

It is here, at the edge, where most of the action is. Hoodoos, their caprocks sitting at jaunty angles, are scattered about in clusters, looking for all the world like groups of alien beings assembled for a social gathering. Petrified logs, looking much the same as they did when the tree fell millions of years ago, emerge from hillsides waiting to surprise and delight visitors. All of these features make great elements for a photographer. That’s one reason why these badlands are destinations for landscape photographers from all over the world.

The-Yellow-Badlands

Another detailed look at the Yellow Badlands. The flat area at the top is a sage covered plain.

Something else that stands out here on the edge of the declivity is the color. The soft clay/ash matrix which holds it all together, is a yellowish brown that differs from the whiter color found deeper into the wash, this yellow coloration indicates the presence of iron oxides in the soil. In places, the hue can be more saturated and stand out from the rest, thereby becoming a magnet for the eye, as the hoodoo column in the photo below does.

The-Yellow-One

One of the many yellow hoodoos along the southern edge of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash

Standing just about anywhere along this southern rim will give you a good idea of the underlying structure of the area. You can literally see the geologic history of the earth at that place. The deeper into the wash you look, the older the formations are. There’s a lot to see, which means it’s easy to overwhelm your viewers with too much information. When composing an image, it’s important to use design elements like color and light to draw the eye to the main points of interest in the scene.

The-Yellow-Lair

Looking west across the yellow badlands. This image reveals the complexity of these eroded wonderlands.

Of course, the way the light lies on the scene, will play a large part in determining the feeling an image will convey. As the sun neared the horizon to the west, it broke through the overcast in places in a series of rays that shone on the vista and, in turn, caused a dappled light which spotlighted parts of the scene, creating a natural vignette, and reducing the general saturation of the colors. The forms and creases were emphasized by the angled light as well. On the downside, shooting into the general direction of the sun requires that you be vigilant for lens flare (unless it’s intentional), and the dynamic range for such a scene can easily overwhelm your camera’s capabilities. I made five exposures of this image in case I needed to blend them in post processing, but I was actually able to complete the final version using only one exposure.

As I was walking back to the car I was in high spirits because I could feel it, you know, that excitement you get when you know you’ve made some good images and can’t wait to get them uploaded and bring them to fruition. Another lesson learned, or I should say re-learned: change your perspective and do things differently; widen your view and look for the possibilities.

The Other Badlands

I spend a lot of time in the desert, more specifically, in the badlands of the San Juan Basin. And, of the nine recognized badlands located there, I usually find myself wandering in either the Bisti Wilderness, or Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. But, I want to step out of the box here and give a nod to the rest: the Ojito Wilderness, Mesa de Cuba, San Jose, Lybrook, Mesa Penistaja, Ceja Pelon, and De Na Zin.

The-Junkyard

Sedimentary rocks strewn haphazardly across bentonite mounds  just inside the boundary of the Ojito Wilderness

What exactly is a badland? Merriam-Webster defines it as: a region marked by intricate erosional sculpturing, scanty vegetation, and fantastically formed hills–usually used in plural. The pre-requisites for a badlands to form are a grouping of harder sedimentary deposits: sandstone, siltstone etc. suspended in a softer matrix. As the softer material is eroded away, the harder, more dense material is left exposed, often perched on pedestals of the soft matrix.

Textural-Fluency

Multi-colored bands and interesting textures abound in this small section of the San Jose Badlands.

But, at times the harder deposits may just be scattered haphazardly across a playa or alluvial plain or they may be isolated and in unexpected angles of repose. The seemingly inexplicable arrangement of the features is part of the mystique of the badlands. How did they get here and why? The answer to that question could fill a Geology text, and I am not even remotely qualified to go there. I can say, with some authority however, that the photographic possibilities are as close to infinite that you can get.

As you can imagine, the creation of such an environment takes time…a lot of time. Mesa de Cuba, the youngest is 38-54 million years old. San Jose is 48-64 million years old, Lybrook, Ceja Pelon, and Penistaja are all 60-64 million years old, De Na Zin, along with Bisti and Ah Shi Sle Pah, is 70-75 million years old, and Ojito is the oldest at 144-150 million years old. Each of the aforementioned locations have their own personality, and each of them offer there own version of timeless beauty.

Juniper-Bones

An ancient juniper trunk in the Colored Bluffs section of the Ojito Wilderness

Color is an element that often takes center stage in the badlands. Depending on the mineral content of the soil, there may be layers of red, yellow, blue, or even green. Combine this palette with the other strange and, often, unexpected elements of the landscape and the other-worldly, remote locations become even more surreal.

Cracked-And-Broken

A closer look at sedimentary rock on bentonite in the Ojito Wilderness.

Possibly the most noticeable feature of such environments are the many erosion channels and drying cracks that cut into the soft bentonite, and mudstone that form the matrices that support the entire system. When the light is right, they stand out in stark relief revealing an almost unimaginable complexity.

The-Path-Less-Traveled

A small wash in a remote section of the Lynbrook Badlands

As I already pointed out, most of these locations are much smaller than their more famous big brothers: Bisti, and Ah Shi Sle Pah. But, what they lack in size, they make up for in their diversity and surreal beauty. When you add to that the knowledge that these environments have been so many eons in the making (that petrified log emerging from the side of that bentonite mound was a cypress tree in a Mesozoic swamp), and are ever evolving (those sandstone slabs you just walked over will be the caprocks of hoodoos in some distant, future landscape), exploring and photographing them becomes even more significant and mysterious.

Where-The-Wild-Things-Grow

A winter storm passes through the Mesa de Cuba Badlands

Just as you can never step into the same river twice; because of their fragile, and ever-changing nature, you can never visit the same badlands twice.

Outdoor Photographer Interview

I was recently interviewed by Outdoor Photographer magazine about Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge as a Photography destination. It is my first time being published in a major publication, so I’m pretty psyched about it. To read the interview click this link.

Final-Approach

A Sandhill Crane lands at one of the many ponds at Bosque del Apache NWR.

Many of you probably know that I make a trip (pilgrimage is more like it) every year in November or December to photograph the cranes, herons, and other waterfowl that inhabit the refuge during the winter months.

Quintessential-Heron

A Great Blue Heron catches his breakfast in one of the many diversion channels at Bosque del Apache NWR.

Most of you have probably seen these images before too. But, I thought I would re-post some of my favorites that weren’t included in the article.

Mass-Ascension

Sandhill Cranes taking wing from one of the crane ponds at Bosque del Apache NWR.

For those of you who would like to visit Bosque del Apache, it is located about twenty miles south of Socorro, New Mexico on state road 1. And, once again, if you would like to read the interview, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

Springtime In Arizona

I have been planning a trip to southern Arizona to capture the spring wildflowers in bloom for several years. Something else always seemed to take priority. This year I finally just packed the car and started driving. I went first to Tucson where I lived for a short time in the late 70s. I was looking forward to seeing the place again.

Brittlebrush-And-Cholla

Brittlebush in bloom and Teddy Bear Chollas on the shore of Lake Pleasant near Phoenix, Arizona

The town has changed a great deal in the ensuing years. The places I could recognize were lost in a miasma of new construction, freeway signs, and traffic that bore little resemblance the place I remembered. I fled to the desert, which was really the point of the trip after all. Getting out of town took way longer than it should have, but I finally made it to Saguaro National Park where I spent the remainder of my first day lost in the healing process of making images.

Cholla-Sunset

Teddy Bear Chollas at twilight near Tucson, Arizona

I spent ten hours driving, walking, and making photographs. I wasn’t as excited as I should have been. The clear blue Arizona sky was boring, as was the light, especially at mid-day. As the sun moved lower in the sky, I noticed some clouds building on the western horizon; they were infused with a magnificent orange glow. I pulled over at a likely spot, parked the car and wandered into the desert. I had a specific image in mind and, as I walked through the cactus forest, I found what I was looking for. Teddy Bear Chollas have a kind of ephemeral quality about them, especially when they are backlit. The light shining through the clustered spines creates a halo of luminescence around them. Their soft, fuzzy appearance belies the reality, Those spines are barbed, and if you are unlucky enough to come too close, the result can be quite painful.

The-Bloomin'-Desert

Brittlebush in Bloom and Saguaros near Oracle, Arizona

After a day shooting in Saguaro National Park, followed by another long drive back into Tucson (long due to traffic, not distance), I decided to head north towards Phoenix in hopes of finding more wildflowers. It was not a lack of quantity, or quality that fueled my decision; there was plenty of brittlebush blooming in the Tucson area, but I was really hoping to find some Mexican Poppies.

Superstition-Sunset

Teddy Bear Chollas at sunset at the Lost Dutchman in the Superstition Mountains

I took the back roads through Oracle, Arizona–one of my favorite writers, Ed Abbey, spent some time there in his later years. On the way I spent part of the day visiting Biosphere 2, before continuing on my way in search of photographs. I eventually arrived at Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction a couple of hours before sunset. Once again, I found myself wandering through stands of cholla and Saguaros waiting for the sun to fall below the horizon. Besides the thrill of the pursuit of images, the experience of solitude in a remarkable landscape is one of the most rewarding aspects of a trip like this.

Standin'-On-A-Corner-In-Winslow,-Arizona

On the way home I stopped in Winslow, Arizona to pose with Jackson Browne. “Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona…”

I never did find the poppies, but all in all, it was a worthwhile trip. I managed to make some nice photographs, and to visit some old friends who live in Phoenix. On the way home, I stopped at a corner in Winslow made famous in song. The statue and “park” are the most noteworthy things I saw in the town, although friends have informed me that there is a good restaurant in one of the old hotels. Maybe I’ll check it out when I return in search of the poppies next year.

 

Winter On The Burn

We have had two major wildfires here in the Jemez Mountains over the last four years. Each destroyed well over 100,000 acres leaving large tracts of forest scarred with the burned skeletons of once majestic conifer trees. After a while, you get used to the desolation. It can even have its own kind of harsh beauty.

Winter-On-The-Burn

The East Fork of the Jemez River flows through Las Conchas where the 2011 Las Conchas wildfire started.

Winter can be especially beautiful in a burn. The tonal contrast between the white snow and the black, charred trees is striking. The textural contrast between the trees on a burned ridge and a lowering storm cloud provide strong elements and tell a story of loss reconciled by time and weather. We can use such conditions to make more compelling images.

Icing

Mixed conifers which were burned in the Las Conchas wildfire in 2011 coated in a layer of hoarfrost

When conditions are right, the bones of the dead trees become coated with hoarfrost and are transformed into fragile, crystalline structures. You can almost hear the tinkling of their branches as they sag under the weight of the frost.

Treesicles-2

Conifer skeletons left over from the 2011 Las Conchas wildfire dressed in a fragile coating of hoarfrost

When the sun breaks through a low-hanging bank of clouds, the light is transformed; it becomes, in a way, magical. The shadows and the mist of the clouds create a kind of frame that surround and isolate the area which is lit, making it the focal point of the composition.

Valle-Grande-Winter-Light

Cerro La Jara in the Valle Grande is illuminated by the sun through a break in the low hanging clouds that cover Redondo Peak which burned in the 2013 Thompson Ridge wildfire.

Otherwise unremarkable elements of the landscape become worthy of attention when they are enhanced by a coat of frost.

The-Big-Chill

Mixed conifers that survived the Cerro Grande wildfire in 2000 stand covered in a thick coat of hoarfrost

They come front and center when the rest of the scene is obscured by cloud cover. Such conditions reduce the clutter that would, under normal conditions, draw our attention away from them.

Treecsicles

Mixed conifer trees that survived the Cerro Grande wildfire in 2000, their needles covered in a thick coating of hoarfrost

The last two images are successful only because of the low clouds which block the view of a conifer covered hillside. If we could see the entire scene, the trees in the foreground would become lost in the background of similar shapes and patterns. By using the softness and the simplicity of winter conditions, we can imbue otherwise unattractive or unworkable scenes with qualities that make them stand out, and render them more recognizable and appealing to the eye of a viewer.

 

 

 

 

 

The Badlands Of The San Juan Basin

The San Juan Basin is a large, roughly circular, depression that lies in the northwest corner of New Mexico, and is a part of the larger Colorado Plateau. What makes the basin special is the fact that, at one time, it was in an area that was covered by the Western Interior Seaway, a prehistoric body of saltwater that split the North American continent from top to bottom.

75ma

The Western Interior Seaway

The location along the shores of a large body of water in a tropical climate allowed an incredibly diverse ecosystem to thrive. As these life forms died, they decomposed and were eventually covered by volcanic ash from the eruption of nearby volcanoes. As the seawater covered the area more sedimentation sifted over the remains and some of the sediment was infused with mineral rich water that seeped through the layers above making it harder than the surrounding matrix. This was an important step in the formation of the present-day hoodoos. The weight of the water compacted the entire assemblage, and it was lost to the the world above the waves.

About 65 million years ago, the waters receded and a layer of sediment nearly two miles thick was left behind. Since then, plate tectonics, volcanism, and glacial erosion have helped to shape the present-day San Juan Basin. Further erosion from wind, water, and annual freeze/thaw cycles exposed the hardened sediment layers which eroded more slowly than the softer sand/ash matrix. The result is a wonderland of hoodoo gardens that are especially obvious along the edges of the many washes that criss-cross the basin. Some of these drainages such as Ah Shi Sle Pah, Hunter and Alamo–the two washes that formed the Bisti, and their tributaries have carved and exposed a treasure trove of unlikely works of earthen art.

The human history of the badlands is of course relatively short. Probably the most significant event in shaping the area in the last hundred years was the discovery of coal and the associated coal-bed methane. By the early 1980’s coal mining, mostly to fuel the nearby Four Corners Power Plant, was consuming large tracts of land throughout the basin. Inevitably, the Bisti became the center of a lawsuit between the Public Service Company of New Mexico and the Sierra Club; PNM already had a mining operation there and it looked like it might become just another large open-pit mine. However, the courts sided with the Sierra Club and in 1984, the Bisti was awarded wilderness status. In recent years, Ah Shi Sle Pah has also become a Wilderness Study Area. So, at least for the present, these gems are safe from the insatiable maw of “progress”.

Of the nine recognized badlands in the San Juan Basin, the Bisti is the largest–at 30,000 acres–and most well known. It includes the Kirtland and Fruitland geologic layers and was deposited 70-75 million years ago. The chief deposits are: sandstone, siltstone, shale, coal, and volcanic ash. Fossils include remains of T-Rex and large cypress-like conifers.

Ah Shi Sle Pah is much smaller than the Bisti, but was deposited around the same time, and thus contains the same geologic layers. It contains the same deposits: sandstone, siltstone, shale, coal, and volcanic ash. The fossils found in Ah Shi Sle Pah include remains of crocodiles, Pentaceratops (which has been found only in Ah Shi Sle Pah), early mammals, and of course, petrified wood.

The other recognized badlands in the basin are: Ojito–the oldest having been deposited 144-150 million years ago–, De Na Zin (70 -75 million years ago), Lybrook, Ceja Pelon, Penistaja (all 60-64 million years ago), San Jose (38-64 million years ago), and the youngest, Mesa de Cuba (38-54 million years ago).

726px-SanJuanBasinUSGS

The map shows the boundaries of the San Juan Basin. Rather than being formed by volcanism like the San Juan and Jemez Mountains to the north and east, the basin was uplifted as a single block after which the center collapsed to create the basin.

The idea for this post came from a show I had last year called Badlands Black and White. I chose to print all the images in B&W in order to focus on the graphic elements: tone, texture, patterns, etc.

A-Puzzling-Landscape

This image was made in Alamo Wash in the Bisti Wilderness. The cracks that result from the shrinkage of the clay rich soil tell a story of the arid environment. The sandstone balanced on the short mudstone pillars is an example of the hardened sediment and how it weathers in relation to the softer layers below it.

An-Alien-Assembly

The floor of most badlands is usually littered with small pieces of debris, which is comprised of bits that have broken or eroded from larger structures. They can be shale, clinkers (super-heated clay), siltstone, or even glacial deposits from the last ice age. There are often fossilized bone and clamshells mixed in with all or some of the above.

Bisti-Tour-Sepia

I made this image of a client while leading a tour in the Bisti Wilderness. The man is standing on an ridge above a deep wash in the Brown Hoodoos section of the wilderness. I wanted to give the viewer a sense of scale and the feeling of being lost in the bizarre surroundings.

Evolution

These eroded pillars are in a small alcove located in a tributary of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. Some of them still have their sandstone caprocks, while some have lost theirs. The badlands are an evolving story of creation and degeneration, once the protective cover of the caprock is gone, the erosion process proceeds at a much faster pace.

In-The-Hall-Of-The-Hoodoo-King-B&W

This image is from Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. The squat hoodoos in the foreground are relatively new and haven’t weathered out to the extent that some of the taller, more widely spaced ones have. Like many of the places I frequent in the badlands, I can’t visit this one without making several exposures.

Stonebones

At Ah Shi Sle Pah, there is a small, raised enclosure; I call it the Dragon’s Nest. What caught my eye the first time I saw it were the patterns and textures eroded into the solidified volcanic ash. This formation, at some time in the past, probably had a sandstone cap-rock.

Tables-Of-Elements

I made this image in Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. This collection of hoodoos sits in the middle of a labyrinthine tributary wash. The small column on the right has lost its caprock and is undergoing accelerated erosion.

Homage-To-The-Queen

This is a formation in the Bisti Wilderness that I call the Queen Bee. It is part of a small area of similar formations known as the Egg Garden. The cylindrical shape of these eroded forms is due to them being formed and hardened inside limestone tubes. As the surrounding layers eroded away, they emerged as distinct egg-shaped forms. The Egg Garden is one of the most popular attractions in the Bisti.

The-Eye-Of-The-Storm-Sepia

This small arch is another feature that brings people come from around the world to visit the Bisti Wilderness. The Bisti Arch can be deceiving; the opening is only about three feet across and half as high. The first time I found it, after searching unsuccessfully during previous visits, I was surprised by how small it is. The top of the arch is made of siltstone supported by a volcanic ash pedestal, and was once part of a wall which stretched across Alamo Wash.

Rocks-Of-Ages-Sepia

In his book “Bisti” which was printed in the 1980’s, David Scheinbaum included an image of this formation with the caption: “This unstable hoodoo is just within the Sunbelt coal-mining lease and will probably be destroyed by mining in the near future.” I made this image on a recent trip to the Bisti Wilderness, and I’m happy to report that the unstable hoodoo is still standing.

Winter White (Balance)

The title of this post has nothing to do with color correction, or the temperature and tint of images. It has to do with the feeling that comes over me when I find myself enveloped in a cloud, surrounded by a world of white.

A good snow has become a rare thing here in the Jemez Mountains. So, it was a pleasure to wake up to nearly six inches of wet, white stuff recently. I dug my snow boots out of the back of my closet and ventured out into the white.

Dormancy

Seed pods and cottonwood trees

Growing things become dormant during the winter, but they are still an integral part of the landscape. I found these elongated clusters of seed pods and  I was struck by both the contrast between and the similarity to the cottonwood trees in the background. The snow on the branches and on the ground served to intensify the graphic elements of the scene.

Winter-Morning

A self portrait on the bridge across the river

This scene of a snow covered bridge over the Jemez River needed only one element to make it complete: a human figure. Since I was the only one around, I volunteered myself. I set the timer on the shutter release and walked across the bridge.

Winter-Cholla

Snow covered chollas

These snow covered cholla cacti caught my eye; their prickly spines covered with a fresh coat of soft snow provided a conceptual as well as visual contrast.

Jemez-River-Winter-Runoff

The Jemez River is running a little murky due to an early run-off.

The spring run-off usually happens in late April to mid-May. This is the earliest I have ever seen the river running this high and murky. I used a 3 stop neutral density filter to slow the shutter to 2.5 seconds in order to render the water as a smooth, chocolate colored flow with vanilla streaks. The background is lacking the rincon (a curved cliff face) which is normally visible from this vantage, but it is obscured by the low-hanging clouds.

Soda-Dam-Wimter-2

A snow covered Soda Dam

The chiseled geology of Soda Dam is softened somewhat by the snow. There is never a lot of snow around it due to the warmth of the ground. Soda Dam is formed by a small warm spring that has laid down the calcium-carbonate deposit over thousands of years. The small waterfall was in deep shadow, so I made two exposures, one for the scene, and one for the waterfall. I then blended the two in Photoshop using a layer mask.

Winter-White

The world becomes a smaller place when the clouds meet the earth.

This final image was made in my driveway. I love the contrast of the trees against the nearly featureless, white…ish background. The normal view includes a ponderosa pine covered ridge.

By mid-afternoon, the world was back to normal, and most of the snow was melting. These ephemeral transformations are short-lived, but they serve to emphasize the things that I love about the place I chose to make my home.

 

 

 

 

The Creative Workflow (WYSIWYG)

I am constantly on the lookout for new images. Even while I’m driving, one eye is searching for a photograph. But, to really see, it is important that I be present so I can delve into the potential image, dissect it and study the relationships between the elements. What is the best way to do this? What should I look for as I move through this process?

The first step is to ask myself: What was it that drew me to this scene? Usually it was a singular object, or a play of light over the landscape. The Soaptree Yuccas, the sidelit patterns, and the subtle light on the sand dunes at White Sands National Monument were what grabbed my attention and led to this first image. Understanding my motivation made it easier realize what I want to say with the photograph.

Next I had to frame the scene  in a way that would tell the story in the best way possible. I placed the closest yucca up front, but a little off center, leaving little doubt that it was the main subject of the image. This placement also allowed me to separate it from the others in the middle ground and avoid a confusing and static composition. My choices for the exposure had to be based on the dynamic range of the scene, which, In this case, was pretty wide considering the bright highlights on the sand in the distance, and the dark tonality in the shadows near sunset.

Rippling-Dunes

Yuccas on a textured dune field at White Sands National Monument

The first technical requirement was that I capture a broad dynamic range, so I made a bracketed series of exposures that covered the entire spectrum of tonalities in the scene. Even though I didn’t need to use all the different exposures, it’s better to have them and not need them than it is to need them and…well you know.  The next requirement was that the depth of field be wide enough to have sharp details front to rear. Because of the low light level at the time of day I was shooting this, the fact that I was shooting at the lowest possible ISO–to achieve the best possible image quality, and the small aperture needed to get the depth of field I required, my shutter speed was relatively slow–1/10th of a second. That meant that I needed to shoot with my camera mounted on a tripod (something I usually do anyway). It’s easy to see from this cause and effect chain how my creative workflow was based not only on composition and design elements, but also included technical considerations.

The-Birds-Of-Heaven

Sandhill Cranes at twilight in a pond at Bosque del Apache NWR

The second image of Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was made at twilight, that special time in the evening just after the sun set and the light is bouncing off the upper atmosphere. I was taken by the reflection of the colored sky and the reeds in the placid water of the foreground, and the transition from the smooth to the to the rough texture of the water, which created a layer-like effect because of the sudden change in color and texture. This layer is also where the action takes place: the cranes mingling, spreading their wings, foraging for dinner. There is then an abrupt transition to the golden reeds and the darker background before the final shift to the lighter tonality and magenta shades of the distant mountains and the sky.

I had my camera mounted on my tripod as usual, but I kept the bullhead swivel loose so I could easily pan to follow the movement of the birds. This image also relies on a wide depth of field to preserve sharpness in the details of all the layers mentioned above. I wanted to make the layering effect more obvious, so I boosted the saturation and contrast a little. Once again, the thought process kicks in and the decisions are made.  The point of all this is to stress the importance of being involved in the making of an image. If you want a photograph to be yours, you need to put a little of yourself into it, and you need to be intentional throughout the process.

 

Two Birds

I killed two birds with one stone the other evening: I did some “blue hour” photography, and I made some panorama images. I have been wanting, for some time now, to get out and photograph the “blue hour”. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the hour before sun-up or after sundown when the light from the setting sun is reflected in the upper atmosphere. The more common name for this time is twilight, and it is divided into three distinct phases: civil, nautical, and astronomical. The duration of twilight changes depending on the time of year, and the latitude from which it is being observed. The blue reference has to do with the color of the light which has a wonderful bluish cast to it and is diffuse without any harsh shadows. So, I finally made myself go out into the diminishing day and drive to the Rio Puerco Valley. The prospect was sweetened by the full moon which would be rising about half an hour after sunset.

Rio-Puerco-Twilight

Cabezon Peak and Cerro Cuate dominate the skyline as the sunset is reflected in the twilight sky in New Mexico’s Rio Puerco Valley

I arrived at my destination two hours before moonrise and set about scouting the area for a good location to photograph the event. Since I am quite familiar with the place, it didn’t take me very long to find what I was looking for. I set up my camera on a tripod and began making test images to determine the correct exposure. As the sun went down and the light softened, I began taking several series of vertical photographs which would later be stitched together in Photoshop to create the final panorama.  The first image was made about thirty minutes after sunset and about twenty minutes before moonrise.

Sundown-Rio-Puerco

A herd of cattle returning home after a hard day grazing in New Mexico’s Rio Puerco Valley.

The second photograph was actually made earlier than the first, but it was more of a test to get the feel for shooting the panorama and I didn’t expect to take it any further. After all, it’s full of cattle, which I consider to be a blight on the landscape. But, in the spirit of expanding my horizons (thank you Robin), I processed the image and, as it turned out, I liked it.

From the information I had gathered from The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I expected the full moon to rise somewhere between Cabezon Peak (the volcanic plug in the distance) and Cerro Cuate (the more prominent double peaked mount). But as the horizon began to brighten I was somewhat dismayed to discover that the moon was not where it was supposed to be…well at least not where I expected it to be. I checked the app on my iPhone again and saw that my expectations were based on a location that was actually a couple miles east of where I was.

Ragged-Moon

A full moon rising, but obscured by clouds, between Cerro Cuate and Cabezon Peak in the Rio Puerco Valley in north-central New Mexico

I had planned to include the moon with the two mountains in the composition; that wasn’t possible from the place where I was standing. Now I had to re-think my plans, knowing that my window of opportunity was small if I was going to capture the moon close to the horizon. I quickly packed everything into my car and drove to the new location, walked to a place which afforded a clear view of the scene, set up, and composed the last image. By now it was dark, I was shooting thirty second exposures, and I was having to focus manually–auto focus doesn’t work very well in the dark. This being my first attempt at photographing at this time of day, and making panoramas, I wasn’t really very hopeful about the outcome. As full dark descended, I pack up my gear by the light of my headlamp and headed home.

The next morning I set about uploading and processing my previous night’s work. Each panorama is composed of nine vertical images which are then stitched together in Photoshop. As the first panorama was rendered I knew I was hooked. Somehow, despite the comedy of errors I had experienced while making the images, I managed to walk away with some finished photographs that I was happy with. It’s always an exhilarating feeling to discover a new technique and this was no exception. I made a few mistakes; there are some things I will do differently in the future, but overall, I’m happy with the way things turned out. It was a good night’s work.

 

The Art Of Contrast

Contrast

:to be different especially in a way that is obvious

:to compare (two people or things) to show how they are different

:the difference in visual properties that makes an object (or its representation in an image) distinguishable from other objects and the background.

That is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of contrast. As a photographer, I can choose to use contrast in a literal or a symbolic sense, I have the ability to increase literal (visual or tonal) contrast within a scene in my post processing workflow. But, if I want to use contrast in a symbolic way, I must have that in mind as I’m making the photograph.

I think it’s important to point out that this article assumes the use of RAW capture. By shooting RAW, I have the full extent of the information that the camera captures, a digital negative, which provides me with many options I can use in my post-processing workflow to reach the final image that I visualized when I released the shutter.

PresenceThere are several ways to work with tonal contrast in a post-processing workflow. My usual choice is the tone curve, which affords more precise control over the tones in an image. In my experience, small, subtle adjustments are best; it’s easy to go too far; a gentle s-curve is usually sufficient. Of course there are many other ways to adjust the tonal contrast of a photograph: levels adjustments, brightness/contrast adjustments, and gamma adjustments to name just a few.

Another way to use contrast is color. By finding hues that are opposite each other on the color wheel, I can achieve a pleasing palette. In both images, the blues in the sky, the subtle yellows in the geologic features, and the more vibrant yellows in the plants provide a visual contrast that doesn’t try to steal the show; instead it creates a unity bringing several elements of the scenes together.

In-The-Extreme

I often make use of textures and patterns to create contrast in my work. The rough texture of rocks or plants against the smoother texture of sand, snow or certain kinds of clouds can provide visual contrast. A rough texture that is side lit will also increase tonal contrast, so it can be a double edged sword. In the second photograph, there is texture in the clouds, which reflects that of the distant hillside, while the Chamisa in the foreground provides both a color and a textural contrast to the blue areas of the sky, and the smoother areas of the ground.

By now it should be clear that most of the design elements can be used to create contrast within an image. But let’s not forget conceptual contrast. The concept or idea behind the image can also provide contrast. The first image shows a human figure nestled in a harsh landscape; it’s not the kind of place most of us think of as a comfortable environment for humans, so there is a contrast between the frailty of the figure and the hard reality of the landscape. In the second image, I used the contrast between the obviously arid environment and the blooming Chamisa to make a statement about the plant’s fragility and it’s ability to thrive in the harshest of circumstances.

So, the next time you are making or processing a photograph, remember that contrast is more than just an adjustment layer in Photoshop, or a slider in Lightroom. It is a multifaceted tool that can take your images to a whole new level.

Bosque del Apache (A Wider View)

I love my Nikkor 80-400mm lens. On a crop sensor camera like my Nikon D300, I can get the effective reach of a much more expensive 600mm lens–albeit with a stop less light. The 80-400/D300 is my lens/camera combination of choice for photographing wildlife; I rarely use my full frame cameras and wide angle lenses while I’m at Bosque del Apache–at least not while photographing the birds. But, in a deliberate attempt to step out of my box, I have lately been making some wider angle photographs of birds, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the results.

Geese-At-Bosque

Nothing can match the spectacle of hundreds of geese taking wing in unison.

My choice of the longer lens and crop sensor camera is driven by that combination’s ability to get in close and isolate the birds. By stepping back a little and capturing the wider view, I am trading the up close and personal frame for the more inclusive approach, which, I think, makes a more informative image. It puts the action in context.

Sunrise-Bosque-del-Apache

Just after sunrise at the Crane Pond, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes are awakening and preparing to fly off to the surrounding fields to spend the day foraging.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I will stop photographing these birds in an intimate context, the wider view is just a different way of approaching the subject, of telling the story.

If you were to go through this blog’s archives and read all the posts about Bosque del Apache, I doubt you would find very many, if any, of these kinds of photographs. So, it is my intention to give you a better overall idea of the scope of the experience.

Geese-Landing-At-Flight-Deck-Pond

Snow, Light, and Ross’s geese landing at the Flight Deck Pond at Bosque del Apache NWR.

One of my favorite things about a trip to the refuge is standing near a large flock of geese when they suddenly, in unison, explode into flight. The first image is my attempt to convey that feeling of synchronized confusion that accompanies these abrupt incidents. The geese will also land as a flock, but they are more relaxed in their approach so a few may land at one time, followed by a few more, until they have all touched down.

Cranes-At-The-Flight-Deck-Pond

Sandhill Cranes land at the Flight Deck Pond while the evening light paints a colorful palette.

The Sandhill Cranes, on the other hand generally take off and land in pairs or small groups of two or three. Cranes are monogamous and will keep the same mate until one of them dies. They also move from one place to another in pairs or as an extended family group.

Taking-Wing

A group of Sandhill Cranes wade in the icy waters while two of their brethren take to the sky in search of breakfast.

Before I began photographing them, I never paid much attention to the habits of birds, but the more I watch them, the more interested I have become in their habits and their lives. Some of these habits can be very useful to a photographer. For instance, when they lean forward with their gaze fixed, it means that take off is imminent, so an informed photographer can be ready when the action begins.

Cranes displaying pre-takeoff posture at the Crane Pond at Bosque del Apache NWR.

Cranes displaying pre-takeoff posture at the Crane Pond at Bosque del Apache NWR.

Final-Approach

A lone crane lands at the Chupadera Crane Pond as the sun begins to set at Bosque del Apache NWR.

Cranes are gangly creatures. When they approach a landing, they look like marionettes dangling from a string. Their long, spindly legs are improbable supports for their frames and their activities. But there is a certain majestic aplomb and zen-like intensity with which they carry out these movements that negates the clumsiness.

A great blue heron catches his breakfast in one of the many diversion channels on the refuge.

A great blue heron catches his breakfast in one of the many diversion channels on the refuge.

Over the years I have developed a kind of schedule for photographing at the Bosque. I usually get to the pond early, just before sunrise and then spend several hours with the cranes as they awaken and fly off to the fields for the day. Afterwards, I drive around the tour loops in the refuge looking for anything that may catch my eye. This is usually when I catch a heron hunting for his breakfast. I realize that this image is a departure from the subject of this article, but this really is the best way to tell the story about the herons. They do nest in groups at night, but their daytime existence is a solitary one. They wade through the shallows looking for a meal, and then move on in search of the next one.

Geese-At-Chupadera-Pond

Snow, Ross’s, and Light Geese resting on one of the crane ponds at Bosque del Apache NWR.

It’s also during these drives around the refuge that I come across scenes like this: hundreds of geese floating placidly in a pond, drowsing, or grooming themselves. Then suddenly and without warning they explode in a cacophony of sound and motion.

Two-Geese-At-Chupadera-Pond

A Snow Goose and a Ross’s goose float side by side on a pond at Bosque del Apache NWR.

 

Two-Way-Traffic

A young mule deer makes his way through the wetlands.

Of course, there are other kinds of wildlife besides birds to be found at the refuge. bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, javelinas, and many others make Bosque del Apache their home. As we were driving toward the exit we came across this young mule deer buck calmly strolling through one of the ponds along the connector road. The two mallards swimming in the opposite direction seemed un-fazed, but stayed on their side of the road.

Bosque del Apache is located about twenty miles south of Socorro, New Mexico along the Rio Grande. I would highly recommend it as a stop on your next visit to New Mexico. If you are a photographer, and you want to isolate the birds, a long telephoto (at least 400mm) is recommend, but as this entry makes clear (I hope), you can make some great images with a shorter lens as well. The best time of year to visit if you want to see the cranes and geese is November through February, but the refuge is open year round and many of the birds and other wildlife make Bosque del Apache their home year-round.

 

Working With Light

Light can be a funny thing. One minute it’s soft, throwing just the right combination of highlights and shadows across a scene; then the sun comes out of the clouds, the light becomes harsh, and your scene becomes a hodgepodge of extreme contrast. While some photographers prefer harsh light for their landscapes, I have always looked for soft diffuse light in my landscape work. Perhaps my preference has something to do with my earlier close-up/macro work. Whatever the reason, I don’t care for a lot of edgy contrast in my photography.

Lignite-And-Clinkers

In this image of lignite mounds and clinkers taken in the northern part of the Bisti Wilderness, the light is soft, but provides enough contrast to give shape to the features of the landscape.

If you think of your landscapes as portraits, which I do, this makes more sense. Any areas that are in deep shadow are hiding a part of the scene. Not only that, they are distracting and even extraneous. Crafting a fine landscape image can be much like writing an essay or novel: you have to finesse each element until it flows well with the rest of the composition. Of course there are times when you have to just accept the conditions you have and if you’re working in harsh light, you need to be aware of how to use the light to your advantage, and how to make adjustments later in post processing if necessary.

In-The-Extreme

I made this image of rabbitbrush in a wash deep in the Bisti Wilderness. The light was harsh and I was shooting almost directly into it, but the wide dynamic range of my Nikon D 800 managed to capture all the information in one exposure. I was also able to make highlight and shadow adjustments in Lightroom during post processing.

This can be accomplished in several ways. Newer cameras are pretty good at capturing wide dynamic ranges within a photograph. Often, one exposure is enough to get all the information needed to produce a good final image. If you are unable to capture all the tones in the scene, you may need to make a series of bracketed exposures and combine them later in HDR software or by blending the exposures in Photoshop. There was time, not so long ago, when I shot five exposures for every image, and then blended them in Photomatix Pro. Now I try to get it all in one exposure. I only bracket exposures under extreme conditions.

Post processing software is becoming much better at making tonal corrections; the highlights and shadows sliders in Lightroom work wonders on a high contrast image. High ISO and low-light noise reduction are also much better in the newer cameras, and the ability of editing software to deal with these problems in post is advancing quickly. So, the tools are available, making good, even great, images under extreme lighting conditions is becoming easier, and the results look better than was possible just a couple years ago.

On a final note, I use Adobe Lightroom 5 and the latest version of Photoshop CC, but there are quite a few very good options out there. On One Software’s Perfect Photo Suite is just one example.

Check out more of my work on my website: http://www.jimcaffreyimages.com

 

 

 

 

Textural Fluency

Texture as a design element is often made to play second fiddle to some of its more obvious kin: line, color, even shape; but it can be a very effective tool in our bag of photographic tricks. It is important here to note the difference between tactile and visual texture. Tactile texture is what we feel when we touch a surface whether it be two dimensional–a piece of fabric, or three dimensional– a marble sculpture. Visual texture is the representation of a three dimensional surface in two dimensions. As photographers working within the confines of two dimensions, we are limited to the visual representation.

Everything has texture. It can be rough and aggressive, it can be smooth and subtle, or it can be somewhere in between. In this image the textures range from rough (the trees) to softer (the grasses) to softest (the low clouds). Texture can make an image more interesting by inviting the viewer to explore the interactions and relationships between the visual elements within the frame.

Jemez-Canyon-Winter-Desat

Textural differences add another design element to an image: contrast. The visual contrast in this image of cottonwood trees during a winter storm gives the viewer a reason to delve more deeply into the image; it attracts the eye and lets the person viewing the image know that I found the contrast between the low hanging clouds, the trees, and the grasses interesting enough to stop and make a photograph.

On another level, the repetitive, more aggressive texture of the trees in the photograph creates a pattern or motif which stands out and dominates the more subtle blending of the background clouds and foreground grass, so the trees become the focal point of the image. Finally, the different textures within the image create layers which add depth both visually and conceptually.

 

A Few Of My Favorite Things (Redux)

Here we are again (already) celebrating another year and renewing the circle. In looking back on 2014, I realize that I didn’t spend as much time in the field as I would have liked to. If I made resolutions, which I don’t, I would resolve to get out with my cameras more in the coming year. That being said, I did manage a few keepers over the past twelve months, so here they are.

Soda-Dam-3Soda Dam is less than a quarter mile down the road from my home. It’s one of those places that is so familiar to me that I have a tendency to neglect it. I made this image on the last day of January.

The-Road-To-The-MittenThe Rio Puerco Valley has been a great source of inspiration for me over the years, but I only made one trip there in 2014. It was well worth it; the atmosphere was putting on quite a show.

Flowing-Into-The-LightIn March I made a drive up to Abiquiu in search of nesting eagles. I didn’t see a one. But, I did find this scene of the Chama River just north of the village of Abiquiu. The light was amazing and the way it lit the distant peaks was icing on the cake.

Old-FriendsRegina, New Mexico is a small village north of Cuba. It has a sleepy feel to it even though New Mexico highway 97 passes through the middle of the town. This old cottonwood, barn, and Chevy flatbed were watching what little traffic was moving by on the road. It seemed a bit nostalgic to me so I made this image.

Bisti-SkylineIn May I made several trips to the Bisti Wilderness, but I concentrated my efforts on the northern area off Hunter Wash instead of the more popular southern section off Alamo Wash. I found this nest of emerging hoodoos in a small hollow in the surrounding hills. The skyline is populated with small stone wings which are more prevalent in the north section than in the south.

Not-All-Who-WanderA little further along on the same day I made this image of Robin making her way across the rolling bentonite hills near the highest point in the wilderness. When these soft hills erode, the incipient hoodoos buried beneath them will be revealed–as illustrated in the preceding photograph. The process is slow, but relentless.

Robin-&-Jim-BistiIn August we returned to the Bisti Wilderness on my birthday and I made this portrait of Robin and me on a small sandstone throne. We were actually within fifty yards of the highway which cuts through a rocky outcrop downstream from where Hunter and Alamo Wash converge.

Viaje-De-La-MuerteThis image is a bit of a cliché, but I think it does a pretty good job of telling the story: these places should not be taken lightly. The badlands of the San Juan Basin, or any wilderness for that matter, can be deadly. I never venture forth without enough water and a GPS receiver.

Autumn-LightWhen you shoot into the light as I did in this image, it is called contre-jour lighting. Actually this is not contra-jour in the strictest sense of the word; the sun was not directly behind the scene. But, the effect is pretty much the same. In this case, the backlighting lends a feeling of ephemeral mystery to the image.

CornucopiaThis image was made one day after the previous one. In this case I was driving past a place that I see every day on the way home. I was struck by the intensity of the colors and by the uncertainty of the sky.

Bosque-IdyllThe last two images were both made at Bosque del Apache NWR. The landscape is a view looking northeast along the south tour loop. It is a peaceful image and the colors are a bit of an emotional contrast.

In-FlightThis sandhill crane is displaying typical intensity as he takes wing from one of the ponds along highway 1 on the western edge of the refuge.

I hope you enjoyed viewing my images as much as I enjoyed making them, and I wish you all a happy and healthy new year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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